Ethel Smyth – Grasp the Nettle

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of Ethel Smyth, but judging by this hugely entertaining play, I’ve missed out. Smyth was a composer, the first female composer to have her work performed at the Royal Opera House in 1902, and the first female composer to have an opera performed at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1903. She also took part in the Suffragette movement, spending time in Holloway prison after bouts of window-breaking, and composed the music to the movement’s song ‘The March of the Women’, which she conducted from her cell window with a toothbrush.

As Smyth, Lucy Stevens portrays a likeable and determined character, recounting her life from her travels to Germany, aged nineteen, to study music, through her various compositions, and then to her involvement with the Suffragettes. She was clearly a woman of tenacity and courage. Interspersed with the drama, Stevens performs excerpts from Smyth’s work (accompanied on the piano by Elizabeth Marcus), including her opera The Wreckers. Stevens is a talented singer and somehow manages to sing all of the parts, from soprano to bass!

This was a thoroughly entertaining play, and I left wanting to find out more about Ethel Smyth’s life and work.

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